By Terry Magee
Each year numerous organizations offer trips to the Holy Land, and most tours visit the same collection of sites. But traveling with a college group provides a different and informative perspective. While working on my master’s degree, I had the opportunity to experience a three-week Holy Land tour and dig combination.
Touring for Quantity, not Luxury
The first difference was the accommodations. After starting at a college campground, we moved to a kibbutz (a communal farm) on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The rooms resembled a budget hotel in the United States: clean, safe, and plain. The final weekend of touring placed us in the Old City of Jerusalem in a hotel that was being renovated. Our rooms would have either air conditioning or a television. Having just endured a 110-degree day in the desert, we opted for air conditioning and cranked it up.
Second, our daily schedule was deliberately aggressive, seeking to visit between 50 and 60 sites in our eight days of touring. We boarded the bus around 7:30 each morning, getting to our first site before 8:30. We packed handy snacks to eat lunch on the bus between destinations. However, once we discovered that most gift shops sold ice cream, we shifted to a frozen lunch and had snacks only if still hungry. We returned around 6:30 for dinner at the hotel. Some evenings we kept going after dinner, whether to visit the Western Wall or swim in the Sea of Galilee. Our rooms were more than sufficient for sleeping and showering, as we were out all day, every day.
Finally, our guide structured lectures at each site for college students rather than tourists. Being from a Bible college, we examined verses connected to each site. At Caesarea Philippi, we discussed Peter’s confession of Christ in Matthew 16 and Jesus’ reply: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18).
Because Israel is rich in history, we quickly went from Old Testament sites to New Testament sites to pre-Israelite Canaanite ruins to Crusader sites. We took copious notes to keep everything organized and not have it blur together, although one co-traveler remarked, “After a while it’s just another pile of rocks.”
While striving to see as much as possible, we did have times to pause and enjoy our experience. We relaxed and sang hymns during a 25-minute boat ride from Capernaum across the Sea of Galilee. Then, after visiting the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, we sat in the nearby church and sang for a half hour.
Our Bedouin bus driver blessed us with our most unique experience. A recently converted Christian, he invited our entire bus, 23 people in all, to his house for lunch. His wife and mother made pizzas in an outside oven and kept feeding us until we could eat no more. Then he sent his sons to purchase ice cream for dessert. This was also the first such invitation for our guide, who had been to Israel more than 20 times.
Many short hikes, such as across the plain to the Arbel cliffs to get a great view of the Sea of Galilee, were built into the itinerary. Also, because it is easier to tour Jerusalem on foot, our bus dropped us off at the Mount of Olives. From there we walked to Gethsemane, into the Old City to Bethesda, along the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, out to the Garden Tomb, and back to our hotel. We also had optional hikes like the trip to En Gedi, where David confronted King Saul. We usually logged 3-5 miles each day.
Down in the Dirt
After eight busy days touring, we packed our bags in Jerusalem and went to a resort southwest of the city, in the Shephelah, the foothills between the mountains and coastal plain. This was our new home while participating in an archaeological dig.
Our accommodations resembled a college dorm, with four to a room, but as always were clean and safe. This site had cafeteria-style dining and an Olympic-sized pool, great for cooling off after being beaten down by the sun. Archaeological digs in Israel occur in the summer, where the temperature never gets below 82 degrees and regularly hits 100 degrees by 10:00 a.m.
We were digging at Tel Gezer, which is not widely known but critical to establishing context for Solomon’s life. In 1 Kings 9, Pharaoh attacked Gezer, removed the Canaanites, and gave the city as a wedding gift to his daughter, who was Solomon’s wife. Solomon then strengthened the city walls and gates, using a similar pattern also found in Megiddo and Hazor.
Because of the heat, we had to be up early—on the bus by 5:00 a.m. to reach Gezer by 5:30. Then we trudged up the hill, laden with as much equipment and water as we could carry. Tel in Tel Gezer means “hill,” and this one had its steep sections. To maintain the integrity of the area, our equipment, dining area, and portable toilets were kept safely back more than a half mile from the dig site.
Forget everything you may have learned about archaeology from movies or television. It moves much slower. Most digging is done with a hammer-sized pick and done on your knees, necessitating kneepads. We only removed about four inches of soil at a time, unless a decision was made to get shovels and go deeper. The dirt was often sifted and everything uncovered went into logged buckets marking the depth and location. The leaders constantly encouraged us to maintain clean and square balks (excavation plots), which challenged my group.
Then there was the waiting. Everything needs to have a context, so they can know the source of each item. We constantly stopped to take altitude measurements. Then we might wait again to know the dig director’s next instructions. Even as college students, we were dependent on the knowledge of our instructors and dig directors. Archaeology is a destructive science—once you remove it you cannot put it back. So we had to proceed slowly.
For much of the dig, our square seemed like the slacker group, moving more slowly, unable to maintain clean, tidy balks. Then in the second week a student held something up to me, asking, “What is this?” She displayed a tiny object, about the size of a peanut split in half, in her dusty glove. I took it to our square leader, and his eyes immediately lit up. “I’ll take that,” he said, and it was the last time I touched it. I saw it later, proudly on display with the dig’s findings. It was a scarab seal, developed in Egypt but used throughout that region. While the analysis goes on for years, it added credence to an Egyptian presence in Gezer.
The Bible Comes to Life
An entirely new dimension to God’s Word is added when being present in the Holy Land. We don’t know exactly where each event took place, despite best efforts to establish a location. We know the Sermon on the Mount overlooked the Sea of Galilee, but perhaps not exactly where the church commemorating it stands. Scholars still debate the exact location of where Jesus was
crucified or the tomb where he laid before his resurrection.
Despite lack of precision, we know we are close. We sail on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus sailed and walked. We walk on the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. Many verses that seemed to be metaphors could actually be observed. Isaiah 55:12 says, “All the trees of the field will clap their hands,” which sounds symbolic. Yet the olive tree is very flexible like a willow tree, with long, narrow leaves like palm fronds, green on one side and silvery on the other. When the afternoon breezes from the Mediterranean Sea blow through the olive tree branches, the branches sway and the leaves jostle into each other. The resulting appearance resembles a tree clapping its hands. After visiting Israel, the entire Bible can be viewed literally, as what seems symbolic may represent what someone observed.
Would I visit Israel again? Definitely! Would I participate in another dig? Of course, although the time commitment would be challenging. Seeing and living the history of the Bible while immersed in God’s Word and promised land was a blessing I will always cherish.
Terry Magee is a freelance writer in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania.